Today's Daily Tip
Why Yoga Works When Diets Fail
However, a year ago, Kreis started yoga at the urging of her friend Kate Chapman Sharpe, another woman trying to lose 30 pounds, and the two have stuck with it together. "It took guts to walk into that first class," Sharpe says. "Because the teacher had a soft voice I couldn't hear from the back of the gym, I realized I was going to have to stand in front and let go of my inhibitions about somebody looking at my butt. So, I told myself, 'It doesn't matter what I look like. What matters is I'm trying.' "
Over the months, as Sharpe and Kreis toned their bodies, they've realized there are yoga benefits beyond how you look in your jeans. "Last year my husband suffered a stroke and heart attack," says Sharpe. "Without yogic breathing, I couldn't have remained level-headed." She's reaped other rewards as well. "When I began yoga, my teacher said smoking wouldn't interfere with my yoga, but yoga would interfere with my smoking. I'm finally at the point where I'm willing to quit," she vows. "I think yoga might eventually interfere with my love of chocolate and rich food in much the same way."
Relationships With Food
When you practice yoga, you develop a deeper relationship with your body, which eventually translates into more controlled eating. After a yoga class, you feel better, because your soul is happy, your energy is moving, your mind is clear, and you're tuned in to yourself, says Suzanne Deason, a Marin County, California, teacher who developed the video Yoga Conditioning for Weight Loss. "In this relaxed state, you're more likely to fix something nourishing rather than grab the first food you crave," she notes. Deason remembers one woman who attended class five times a week, eventually losing 35 pounds. "She told me that yoga helped her body feel so much better that she stopped eating foods that weren't good for her," she says.
And yoga works where diets often fail. "Yoga—unlike dieting—is not about depriving yourself to look a certain way," Varshell observes. "Instead, it helps you enjoy every movement and savor every bite of food you take. Yoga is about going deep inside and discovering who you are right now. Yoga helps you accept yourself at any size, looking lovingly and realistically at how you got where you are today, without blame or shame."
However, shunning diets doesn't excuse a person from eating well, Varshell points out. "We all must take responsibility for our food choices," she says. "To feel good, you need to implement balanced, healthy eating habits." She distinguishes between being on a diet—a regimented program—with choosing good food. "A friend who's dropped 20 pounds says yoga has helped her with 'loving discipline,' " she explains. "We usually think of discipline, especially diets, as punishment. But the word 'discipline' is actually from the word disciple. In yoga we become disciples, people willingly, excitedly following a new way of doing something to enhance our way of life. By regularly practicing yoga, your habits and choices improve, and you begin living consciously."
Yoga for All Shapes
Besides nurturing self-acceptance, yoga offers physiological benefits. "Yoga may not bring you to the point of burning off that last 10 pounds," admits Deason, "but you do experience muscle toning. Standing poses in particular tone and trim your legs, hips, buttocks, and abdomen, while developing stability and strong muscles. Building the large muscle groups increases the muscle-to-fat ratio, which speeds weight loss since muscle burns calories quickly."
In addition, yoga increases energy and circulation, which contribute to overall well-being. "Yogic breathing oxygenates your body, helping your metabolism function at a higher level," Deason says. Vinyasa, with its fast-paced, continuous motion, raises the heart rate, though not to the extent of cardiovascular exercise. However, Deason warns that focusing solely on burning calories misses the point of yoga.
The cardinal rule in yoga is to honor your own ability, no matter what your weight is. Driving yourself too hard is an invitation to injury and discouragement. "Stay true to who you are, just tickling your personal edge—the place in a pose between what you can do easily and where it becomes more difficult than is safe," says Haddon. "In yoga, you receive the full benefit by respecting your own level of comfort, ability, strength, and flexibility. You undercut the process if you start comparing yourself to somebody else."
Gentle yoga is essential for someone of substantial size. "I teach people to work slowly and softly, so they succeed, rather than becoming more frustrated than before they started," says Naomi Judith Offner, whose video Gentle Yoga with Naomi is a good guide for those of us with round bodies. "It's when people fail at exercise—when they don't feel comfortable in a class—that they go out and eat from frustration, stress, and anxiety."
If you have difficulty bending, kneeling, or lying on the floor, start with very gentle yoga that can be done in a chair or in bed. Light stretches and attention to the breath leave you feeling deeply relaxed but invigorated. Once you're comfortable with gentle movement, you can try other levels, using modifications and props. For instance, a series of asanas—including the classic Sun Salutation—can be done in a chair or with a chair for support, says Nischala Joy Devi, author of The Healing Path of Yoga. "My goal is to help people benefit from yoga without injury or strained muscles," says Devi. She also notes that size is not a measure of flexibility. "Many people with a few extra pounds are incredibly flexible," she says. "Conversely, many thin people are quite stiff."
Modify the Poses
No matter how well-meaning a thin yoga teacher is, she or he has probably never experienced yoga as a person of girth. That's why it's important for you to know your abilities and keep your practice safe—but just challenging enough—for you.
Common concerns for us heavy people include reaching arms above our heads, folding into a forward bend (and being able to breathe once we're there!), sitting cross-legged, holding a pose for a length of time, and experiencing back and knee strain due to added weight around the middle. But in yoga there are always solutions. Place a bolster under the knees to alleviate back strain when lying down; when seated cross-legged on the floor, fold a blanket under your rear. If you can't reach your arms around your knees to pull them to your chest when lying down, a belt will extend your reach.
"You don't have to sacrifice a posture if your body doesn't bend like a pretzel," Haddon says. "But be sure to honor both the posture and your own body." Her advice is to err on the side of caution. For instance, if your weight stresses your lower back, proceed slowly, with awareness. "If you gently and gradually work into postures such as Cobra and Boat, you can strengthen your back," Haddon says.
Balancing poses require special attention. "People of substance run a greater risk of spinal injury in inverted balancing poses and should avoid them," Haddon says. When a heavy person does Headstand, she or he needs considerably more muscle power to correct a slight wobble than a lean person needs to correct the same degree of imbalance, she explains. (Tree Pose, on the other hand, develops balance and is safe for full-sized bodies.) And take credit for your own strength. "It amuses me to think the weight I'm hoisting in Plank is equivalent to what those buff guys in the gym are bench-pressing," says Sharpe.
Props can help you fully benefit from yoga, compensating for tight joints, limited flexibility, or arms that don't reach around an expansive body. Vandoske considers himself the king of yoga props—he routinely packs a pair of blocks, two straps, two sandbags, a blanket, and a mat when he heads off to the studio. "Props get me to a level in a pose where I feel comfortable and can improve," he says. "The key to success in yoga for anybody carrying extra weight is to modify. Accept where you are and don't be afraid to experiment with modifications."
Often, a pillow beneath the forehead can make it easier to settle into Child's Pose, or a strap can help open the hips and hamstrings. Don't worry whether modifications are kosher. "Yoga is about being comfortable," says Devi. "The definition of asana in the Yoga Sutra is 'a comfortable and steady pose.' But the word used for 'comfort' is sukha, which also means 'happiness.' If what you do brings happiness, then you're doing real yoga," she adds.
Practice Brings Patience
"Yoga involves so much stretching," says Sharpe. "There are downward stretches, side stretches, intellectual stretches, and emotional stretches." Indeed, both processes—learning yoga and losing weight—require patience and perseverance. A yoga practice takes time to cultivate; likewise, unwanted pounds won't disappear overnight.
Because it fuses spiritual with physical practice, yoga offers a path for self-discovery and self-acceptance. Through it, I'm more attuned to my needs and feel better physically and emotionally.
No, yoga won't always keep me from noshing on nachos.
Yet I respect myself more than before I started yoga, and I'm more likely to acknowledge my successes: small ones like holding Downward-Facing Dog for four breaths instead of two, big ones like taking a meditation break instead of a cookie break.
In time, yoga can transform you and your body. With work and years of yogic practice, Varshell has overcome illness, improved her relationship to eating, polished her self-image, and shed pounds. "Now I see food as a way to love and nourish my body, rather than hide from my emotions," she says. "Holding a pose long enough to feel muscle after muscle let go and melt into the floor touches me in a way that ice cream never could."
Laurel Kallenbach is a freelance writer from Boulder, Colorado.
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